Eric Barreto: Not Knowing (Luke 9:28-36)
This sermon was originally delivered by one of Church Anew’s advisors, Rev. Dr. Eric Barreto, as part of the opening worship for Renew 2023. To watch all of Renew On-Demand, click here.
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking about his exodus, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep, but as they awoke they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us set up three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah,” not realizing what he was saying. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had these moments in my life when it felt like words tumbled out of my mouth before I could even figure out what I was trying to say. Sometimes those moments are caused by fear and uncertainty, resulting in embarrassment. Sometimes those moments are caused by making a silly mistake, resulting in some humor. Sometimes those moments come in the midst of a conflict with someone I love, resulting in hurt. Sometimes those moments come when I least expect it, resulting in surprise.
In some of these moments, it feels like I can see my words tumbling from my lips as I lunge to try to grab them, but it’s simply too late. The embarrassment has set in. The mockery begins. The hurt I have caused is all too real.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had these moments in my life when it felt like words tumbled out of my mouth before I could even figure out what I was trying to say.
But sometimes, every once in a great while, so very rarely, the words come tumbling out not because I’m stressed or I made a mistake or I was angry or I was frustrated but because it felt like I was no longer the one speaking, the words were no longer mine, some other force was at play.
A story. When I was in seminary, I spent a summer in a hospital serving as a chaplain. I had no idea what I was doing and even less any idea about what to say to the people I met. Day after day that summer, I was encountering patients and their families at their most fragile and vulnerable. I was there as these folks confronted death and all its cruelty. From babies struggling in the NICU to the elderly breathing their last, the hospital provided so many opportunities for me to learn that I didn't know what was talking about.
There was this one day in particular. A young, Latinx couple were in the hospital because they had lost a pregnancy. They were devastated. And I know Spanish. I really do, but you have to understand that though Spanish is my first language, all my education from kindergarten on was in English. At some point, I stopped praying in Spanish and defaulted to English. The whole of my theological education included but a smattering of Spanish. My vocabulary is largely English-speaking. When I’m speaking Spanish, I’m often translating in my head from English to Spanish. I already knew that I didn’t know what to say as a 22-year-old seminarian, but I was the only one around who could even begin to understand their words and share something, anything that might address the grief they were facing. When I went into that hospital room, I was confronted by an impossible situation in this couple’s lives and by my inability to speak comfort to them as well as I could have done in English.
Not knowing what he said. I relate to that, Peter. And perhaps you do too.
This morning, the Gospel of Luke takes us to a mountaintop, to the very presence of God’s glory, to a scene that is both beautiful and just confounding. I mean, what is going on in this scene of Transfiguration? I don’t know about you, but this story strikes me as so, so strange. And yet so, so familiar.
Let’s take a closer look at this beautiful and confounding story.
The action is intense in this chapter of Luke. First, Jesus sends the twelve out into the world to heal and exorcise; that is, he sends them out to do Jesus stuff. Herod hears about this proliferation of the forces of life, and he is perplexed, perhaps because the power of empire is to take life not to multiply it. To illustrate the force of life, Jesus feeds more than 5000 in the middle of nowhere. In light of all this action, Peter confesses that Jesus is the messiah. He gets it! He says the right words! And then Jesus shares some devastating news. His messianic path would not lead to a crown and a throne but to suffering and a cross.
All this action leads us to the quiet of a mountain where Jesus seeks to pray, to connect to the God who had laid a path of suffering before him. Perhaps Jesus knows all too well the burden he is about to carry on the road to a Roman cross. Perhaps he knows all too well that the power he needs is find in the quiet of prayer, not the bombast of empire’s power.
As Jesus is praying, his countenance changes. His clothes dazzle. And suddenly Moses and Elijah jump off the pages of the Hebrew Bible and are present in the flesh. Why Moses and Elijah? Well, because, as you might remember, both Moses and Elijah don’t die in the Scriptures, at least not in any normal human way. Moses is buried by God’s hand in a place no one knows. Elijah is welcomed into the heavens in a chariot. Their return forms part of the universe of messianic expectations that nurtured the Gospel writers. For Jesus to be Messiah, we had to see Moses and Elijah too!
And here, Peter steps in, overwhelmed by all he is seeing and experiencing and offers to put up some tents for Jesus, for Moses, and for Elijah.
And here is where the sermon typically says that Peter, as he often is wont to do, just doesn’t get it. He tries to contain the luminescence of this scene, capture it, stay at this mountaintop forever. Don’t be like Peter, I should be telling you now. Don’t try to explain the unexplainable. After all, doesn’t Luke say that Peter spoke, “not knowing what he said”?
Maybe there’s another possibility for this story. I wonder if we are not meant to be critical of Peter’s utterance here. Even though he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, his instincts are good ones. In the presence of beloved ancestors, in the presence of the radiance of God’s glory, is there a better move than hospitality? We will host you, declares Peter, in a Gospel so full of scenes of the joy-filled tables where Jesus sat. Jesus in Luke loves a good meal. Maybe Peter learned well from Jesus how the shape of welcome, the shape of the Gospel looks like a marvelous dinner party. After all, wasn’t this what was a credit to Abraham when he hosted angels unaware? The last time something like this happened in exodus, Moses stayed for 40 day. In a world in which hospitality is not just a societal nicety but a way of survival, isn’t Peter doing his best here? He doesn’t know what he is saying, but something or some force or someone leads him to the next best thing to say.
It wouldn’t be the last time that Peter speaks beyond what he understands. In the Book of Acts, Peter will preach the first sermon after Jesus’ ascension, his departure as our story puts it. He will be the first witness to the goodness of God and the power of the resurrection and the transformative force of forgiveness and the power of communities the Spirit has brought together. At Pentecost, Peter will declare that all flesh will receive the Spirit. All flesh! All of us! All of you!, he declares.
But this is the same Peter who will need to be convinced that all flesh means all flesh. In Acts 10, Peter will struggle with what to do when he is called to visit the Gentile, Roman centurion Cornelius and his household. Does all flesh really mean all flesh?
That is, Peter preached more than he was ready to believe, he said more than he understood. Sometimes that’s how the Spirit moves among us.
Sometimes God will teach us words to say to the grieving. Not knowing what we are saying.
Sometimes God will teach us to sing a song about the breadth and depth of God’s grace we will never fully understand. Not knowing what we are saying.
Sometimes God will teach us to speak words of forgiveness and repair. Not knowing what we are saying.
Sometimes God will teach us how to love one another, even to love our enemies. Not knowing what we are saying.
Sometimes God will teach us that we have been so, so wrong about our neighbors, God’s beloved children. Not knowing what we are saying.
But notice that our story does not end with Peter’s words, whether good or bad. The story ends with God’s clear voice calling us to listen to Jesus. And here the disciples are silent. It’s as if all their words have run out.
After all, what is there to say when we have come before the glory of God?
What is there to stay when we have experienced the very brink of losing everything we treasure?
What is there to say when tragedy strikes, when our hopes are dashed?
What is there to say when a relationship we thought was lost is healed, when that one secret prayer is answered, when joy and grace flow over you in an unexpected moment?
What is there to say when we just don’t know what to say?
Perhaps there isn’t much to say because God has already said it all. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”
Listen to him, friends. He is always and already near.
Back to the hospital room where I started. I remember walking in with my supervising chaplain. I think he knew somehow that I needed to be in that space or better yet that God had already gone ahead of us into that space. I introduced myself. And our conversation began.
My friends, I began to speak in Spanish using words that I thought I had long forgotten or that I sometimes suspect I had never learned in the first place. It’s as if some reservoir of language had opened up. But more than anything, I kept repeating one phrase, “It’s just not fair.” Sometimes, it turns out, God might even teach us to speak healing words in a language we thought we had forgotten.
Not knowing what he said. I relate to that, Peter. And perhaps you do too.
Dr. Eric Barreto is the Weyerhaeuser Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. His passion is to pursue scholarship for the sake of the church, and he regularly writes for and teaches in faith communities around the country.
Twitter | @ericbarreto
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